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Technology Untangled: Regain some Internet privacy and anonymity

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technology-bourThe issue of online privacy, or rather the lack thereof, seems to be in the news almost every day. The depth and scope of the NSA surveillance scandal continues to be revealed in the headlines on a regular basis. Along with government snooping, retailers trying to sell you something are always looking for ways to gather data about you so they can sell you even more stuff, Google being one of the worst offenders.

While no one should operate under the illusion that total Internet privacy is obtainable, there are at least a few things you can do to keep from being a complete open book when using the Internet. Today’s article looks at several software solutions and one hardware device to help improve your privacy.

The first and easiest defense is don’t use Google as your Internet search tool. Google retains a massive database of every search everyone performs, including the computer address (IP address) of the computer that performed the search. It also leaves behind retrievable history information (tracking cookies) on your computer about, for example, what you may be shopping for online. It helps them to target popup ads and work toward selling you more. While the main purpose of this database is for use by marketers, others such as government entities, criminals and hackers have ways to gain access to this search data, which can reveal a surprising amount of information about you.

For safer searching, use an anonymous, non-tracking search engine like Startpage. Startpage actually uses the Google search database, but performs the searches for you. This places your computer once removed from the process. But be aware that after you click on a search result, an individual Web page can connect with your computer and personal information could be passed on. To prevent this, you can use the proxy service feature. In this mode, Startpage goes to the website you select, retrieves the page and displays it for you. The chosen website sees only the Startpage IP address, not yours. The response is a bit slower, and some website features may not function, but this method is more anonymous. For more detailed information, go to startpage.com and click on the About tab.

For continuous Web browsing without working through a search engine, you can try the free Tor Browser. The Tor Browser insulates your IP address from the browsing process by bouncing your communications through a series of intermediate computers and IP addresses both on the way out of and back in to your computer. The communications path is ever changing. This process prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits. The computers used for the bouncing are hosted by Tor volunteers who are big privacy advocates. Their nonprofit Tor project is dedicated to the research, development and education of online anonymity and privacy. According to the Tor website (torproject.org), the system was originally developed for the U.S Navy for the protection of government communications. Today it is used by the military, law enforcement officers, activists and regular citizens.

You can download the browser bundle at https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html.en.

Note that Tor does not eliminate your existing Web browser software; it simply provides an additional browser choice besides Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome. Simply deploying Tor is not all you will need to browse anonymously. Tor advises that you will need to change some of your browsing habits to get the best effect with it. So read the list of warnings and instructions that come with the installation package. For example, Tor blocks some website features that could be used for data mining. This includes plugins such as Flash Player that often are used for YouTube videos.

If loading such software exceeds your comfort level, there is a similar hardware solution. Safeplug is a $49 black box that connects to your Internet router and shields your IP address from the outside world. According to the Safeplug website (pogoplug.com/safeplug), Safeplug sets up in 60 seconds and allows you to use your existing Web browser to surf the Internet with complete anonymity and peace of mind. After connecting to your router, you simply go online and register your device to begin safer browsing. There is no continuing subscription fee.

As I conducted my research on how the Safeplug device works, I was surprised to find that Safeplug actually uses the Tor network to secure your Internet connection. With that being the case, I do not see a big advantage with paying to use this device when you can download Tor itself for free. I suppose there is a small benefit to being able to use your existing browser interface, and perhaps there is some degree of technical support that comes with the Safeplug hardware. In addition, Tor can be a bit of a pain to set up and fine-tune while Safeplug does it all automatically. Plus, Safeplug provides a built-in ad blocker. The choice is yours.

While none of today’s suggestions are bulletproof methods to regain full anonymity on the Internet, at least they can help you gain back some small degree of privacy.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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